MIND MELD: The Best Spaceships in Written Science Fiction
Spaceships have been a staple of science fiction stories since its earliest days of imagining ourselves beyond the stars. We asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said.
I’d like to book passage on one of the vehicles from Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, because their names are totally cool, like: Sudden Shift in Emphasis and Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill.
Also because the ship Minds are highly superior entities, so I trust they’d be less likely to turn left at the wrong wormhole or crash-land on some uncharted planet with hostile life forms. And the accommodations onboard, I believe, are quite comfortable.
Picking a favorite spaceship from science fiction is a little like shopping for a new car; it all depends on what you’re looking for. Do you want speed? Then you might go for the Britannia-class starships of Edward E. Smith’s Lensman novels, which could travel to another galaxy in only a few days. Would you prefer something with a lot of legroom? Then you may want Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama, Robert Reed’s Marrow, or the spindizzies of James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels. Or maybe you’d like a classic from the pulp era? Then cruise the solar system in the teardrop-shaped Comet of Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future stories.
After walking around the used-spaceship lot, though, I’ve narrowed my choices down to three:
At the top of my list are the torchships of Robert Heinlein’s young-adult novels of the 50’s. Until then, most SF spacecraft were badly described or flat-out impossible; Heinlein, as always, changed the rules of the game. His torchships were large spherical vessels that used nuclear propulsion systems and had multiple levels for passengers and cargo. They could land in any number of different environments, and even float on water. Interplanetary versions were described in Farmer in the Sky and Between Planets, while a larger interstellar version were described in Starman Jones and Time for the Stars. Heinlein’s torchships may seem quaint today, but they set the standard for feasible spacecraft that didn’t look Oldsmobile hood ornaments.
If I want something more exotic, and don’t mind buying extra life insurance, I might pick the Heechee ships of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway and its sequels. These alien spacecraft were found inside an asteroid in our solar system that an extraterrestrial race once used as an outpost before abandoning it. Shaped a bit like mushrooms, they’re capable of faster-than-light velocities and can carry up to five people. The only drawback is that their navigation systems are locked down and can’t be changed; once you set off in a Heechee ship, you have no idea where it’s going or how long it will take for you to get there. So you may arrive at a habitable world … or you wind up in the event horizon of a black hole, with no way to return. A great trip, but not for the faint of heart.
But for sheer versatility, I might go with the Leif Erikson. This was the creation of the late Matt Jeffries, who also designed the original U.S.S. Enterprise, for AMT Ertl’s line of Star Trek model kits. Elegantly streamlined, with an interesting conning tower at its bow, one of its major features is an opening hangar bay with a small, removable landing craft tucked inside. The model was first released in the late 60’s under its original name, then released again several years later as a glow-in-the-dark “UFO Mystery Ship.” It’s been a scarce collector’s item until a couple of months ago, when AMT Ertl reissued it, albeit still in its photoactive molding and lacking the internal lighting fixtures or nacelle engines of the original.
The Leif Erikson – model collectors like myself refuse to call it the “UFO Mystery Ship” — has a literary pedigree as well. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle adapted it as the MacArthur for The Mote in God’s Eye, with Rick Sternbach rendering a painting of it for their Galaxy magazine article on the writing of that novel. I used it as the template for the Robert E. Lee in my novels Galaxy Blues and Coyote Horizon. And also it’s appeared on the covers of several SF paperbacks. Clearly built to last, even if it’s only thirteen inches long.
Gateway by Frederik Pohl scared me on a visceral level-shitless, really-because it tapped into my simultaneous fear and eagerness to discover the universe’s unknown treasures. In this multiple award winning novel, Earth citizens can enter a lottery to become a prospector on “Gateway,” which is basically an alien hangar beneath the surface of Venus.
Gateway houses hundreds of self-guided ships left by an alien race dubbed the Heechee. The ships’ destinations are unknown until prospectors take them for a ride. If they discover anything of use to the Gateway Corporation in charge of the operation, they stand to make a profit (millions of dollars in some cases). Sometimes, however, the ships never return, or even if they do, the prospectors end up dead.
It’s not the idea of riches that would motivate me to become a prospector on a Heechee ship, however. Erm, and it isn’t the dying part, either. When I first read Gateway, I felt intense anticipation about each voyage described. I remember practically salivating over the places or alien artifacts the prospectors would discover. This was the first science fiction book I read that made me realize I’d be willing to risk everything in order to have just one glimpse of a true alien artifact-even if it was a mere bar of soap.
That feeling stayed with me, and while I’ve encountered other jazzy space crafts in SF over the years, nothing has yet replaced the sense of wonder-and danger-as the idea of being a prospector on a Heechee spaceship.
The more I thought about it, the more great spaceships came to mind, so it was tricky to pick two or three out of that list. One spaceship that I’ve always loved is Seth. You might be forgiven for not knowing/ remembering who Seth is. Well, Seth is Nemesis the Warlock‘s blitzspear. First and foremost, Seth looks so damned cool. He’s the Lamborghini of the spaceship world. Coupled with this, Seth is also a sort of car and can travel planetside, so you’re not just stuck in space. Most of all, Seth is a sentient, psychic creature, with a skin of star metal that he sheds every hundred years, leaving a silvery sort of fleece that can be used as armour. He’s not just a spaceship, he’s an ally.
My next vote goes to the Sleeper Service from Iain M. Banks’ Excession. All of the culture ships are awesome pieces of technology, and the idea of the hyperdimensional Minds that control them makes my ultra-tech nodes throb with excitement. Capable of travelling many thousands of times the speed of light, and holding a conversation at the same time, a Culture GSV has to be the ultimate in civilised transport. However, the Sleeper Service in particular floats my boat because whilst travelling the dark voids of space I can be in suspended animation, posed with an almost invisible forcefield as a combatant in a frozen battle scene. Where else can you combine interstellar travel with being part of an art installation?
Having chosen two sentient vessels, for my final choice I would go to the other extreme; from ships that I could get along with to a vessel that is more likely to get me killed or hideously maimed than to get me anywhere useful. Yup, given the chance, and probably quite a lot of alcohol, I’d sign up to crew one of the Heechee ships from Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Nothing says adventure like not knowing whether you’re going to end up at a planet full of technological riches or the inside of a star. It’s worth the gamble.
was Professor of Astronomy (Adjunct) at Cypress College in California, Professor of Computer Science at Cal State Los Angeles, and Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Woodbury University. He was also offered positions in Computer Science at Cal State L.A., and in English at Pasadena City College, both of which were retracted when budgets were cut. He has co-authored material with Ray Bradbury, Richard Feynman, David Brin and Arthur C. Clarke. Jonathan is the co-creator of The Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide.
My favorite Alternate World War II spaceship, influenced by the Nazi Moon Rocket in Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo  is this one, shown in a passage from my novel manuscript (unpublished) Fast Times at Stuyvesant High. The engineering is very real; this was an actual design, which I have studied in detail. The readers do not yet know that there is a pilot, and that New York City is the nuclear target.
The first stage of the Adolf-666 fell away in the subfreezing black sky above the Atlantic Ocean, with the gunshot bangs of the explosive bolts, the scream of tortured exospheric oxy-nitrogen on hypersonic aluminum, and the roar of the modified A4 upper stage’s ethyl alcohol/liquid oxygen engine electrically ignited and blasting like a blowtorch from Hell.
A plain vanilla A4 by itself could have gone no higher than an 85 kilometer apogee, with its liftoff thrust of 270 kiloNewtons, total mass of 12,800 kilograms, core diameter of 1.65 meters, and total length of 13.6 meters. But this was modified in three crucial ways. First, to be started in space after the gigantic booster was blown free. Second, the ultra-secret guidance system. Third, the atomic warhead designed by Heisenberg and his men, designed to wipe out the target city and at least a million civilians. Once the radioactive dust had settled, the Allies would have no choice but to capitulate, and concede victory at last to Hitler.
The thrust and planned dimensions of the A10 transatlantic rocket first stage had been used to determine the size of the research and production shops and test stands at Peenemuende. There is no quaint graceful architecture at Peenemuende. It is a notably ugly one-horse village. Yet myths and legends about the rocket research center, remains of military architecture, the Historical Technical Information Centre, and the Submarine Museum, make it one of the more interesting places on the island of Usedom, at least compared to Bansin, Heringsdorf, Zinnowitz, Karlshagen, Koelpinsee, Koserow, Loddin, Trassenheide, Ueckeritz, or Zempin, which is where one goes for art, architecture, fishing, markets, or resorts.
The original A9/A10 transoceanic missile idea of Von Braun had been found to be unworkable due to heat transfer issues, but the ever-growing army of engineers, technicians, and slave laborers had solved those problems long ago.
What a long, slow road it had been from amateur rocketry to the Nazi nuclear missile that had leveled Moscow and blown that bastard Stalin into million degree plasma…
Creating the 25 tonnes thrust rocket engine for the A4 was also bedeviling. It took seven years of trial and error to perfect a fuel-cooled rocket engine of 1.5 tonnes thrust and a specific impulse of 215 seconds. Again and again, scaling this engine up to the 25 tonnes thrust required for the A4 met severe combustion instability problems. The interim solution for producing test A4 missiles was found – clustering 18 of the 1.5 tonne combustion chambers, feeding into a common mixing chamber; that’s what was pressed into production. The film cooling eventually used in the V-2’s engine had performance penalties, yet was necessary, since high-quality metals for the nozzle throat were not available at the time.
The Atlantic was rough with choppy waves, splattered with clouds, but still gleamed blue beneath the indifferent Sun. The spherical curvature was obvious at this altitude, and the missile’s velocity rolled new vistas over the horizon. The Uranium-235 kernel of the atomic bomb was close to thermal equilibrium, chilled as infrared carried away the last of the frictional heat from the missile ripping through atmosphere on ascent, warmed by inexorable slow fission. That fission would soon go trillions of times faster when explosives smashed the critical mass together, the neutron trigger started the reaction, and the beryllium foil reflected the first generation of neutrons back on the warhead’s core. But the descent had not yet commenced.
Developing supersonic aerodynamics and control systems for the V-2 took hundreds of A5 tests in wind tunnels, air-drops, and powered flights. The missile had to be controlled when rising vertically at near zero speed, when aerodynamic surfaces were ineffective. Then it had to remain controllable and stable at subsonic, transonic, and supersonic speeds up to Mach 4 by mid-1942, ten years after development had started. The turbopumps to feed the propellants to the engines proved relatively easy. To Von Braun’s surprise, high-volume low-weight pumps were already well developed for fire engines. “That’s ironic,” he thought to himself, tossing back a gulp of peppermint schnapps. “Fire engines will not be much use when the target city is vaporized.”
My favorite Spaceship from fiction that I wrote in the previous decade was the one powered by “The Feynman Drive” in “One Hundred Trillion Worlds“, co-authored with my wife, the Physics professor Dr. Christine M. Carmichael.
The key to the Feynman Drive is a submicroscopic sample of the hypothetical element Feynmanium, named after my real-life mentor and co-author from my Caltech days. This is science fiction based on a nugget of legitimate published Physics theory, which leads to my two argumentative married couples stranded billions of light years away, trying to figure out where they are at all, using astronomy that Dr. Gregory Benford validated for us.
Feynmanium (symbol Fy) is informally used for a hypothetical chemical element of atomic number 137, which has not been observed to occur naturally, nor has been synthesized, nor is it known if this element is physically possible.
As wikipedia continues:
The Bohr model exhibits difficulty for atoms with atomic number greater than 137, for the speed of an electron in a 1s electron orbital, v, is given by:
v = Z alpha c = approximately Z c / 137.036
where Z is the atomic number, and ? is the fine structure constant, a measure of the strength of electromagnetic interactions. Under this approximation, any element with an atomic number of greater than 137 would require 1s electrons to be traveling faster than c, the speed of light. Hence the non-relativistic Bohr model is clearly inaccurate when applied to such an element.
The relativistic Dirac equation also has problems for Z > 137, for the ground state energy is
E=m c^2 (sqrt(1-Z^2 alpha^2))
where m is the rest mass of the electron. For Z > 137, the wave function of the Dirac ground state is oscillatory, rather than bound, and there is no gap between the positive and negative energy spectra, as in the Klein paradox.
More accurate calculations including the effects of the finite size of the nucleus indicate that the binding energy first exceeds 2mc^2 for Z > Zcr ? 137. For Z > Zcr, if the innermost orbital is not filled, the electric field of the nucleus will pull an electron out of the vacuum, resulting in the spontaneous emission of a positron.
More complete analysis involving relativity shows that the contradiction this particle poses may actually occur in the hypothetical 139-element (see the Wikipedia article unsolved problems in chemistry).
I have a predilection towards sentient spaceships which first began after reading Anne McAffrey’s Brainship series when I was younger.
Over the years though, other spaceships that caught my attention include the Gideon Drive Pax ships (more fascination than appreciation) and the Sequoia Trees in the Hyperion Cantos, the Voidhawk and Blackhawk in the Peter Hamilton’s, Night’s Dawn Trilogy. I’ve also always thought it would be rather cool to head off to an unknown destination in a Heechee starship (Frederick Pohl – Gateway). But the “fine art expert AI” in Scott Westerfeld’s Evolution’s Darling, makes that ship my most interesting and desirable of all time. See, it’s all about the mind!
If there’s one fictional SF milieu that, at the age of 16, I could have happily lived in, it would be the Known Space universe of Larry Niven. Not just any period, though: it would have to be in the 200 years or so between the Beowulf Shaeffer stories and the events of Ringworld. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? It’s relatively utopian, the Man-Kzin wars are over, and we’ve got a whole panoply of colourful planets and societies to explore, and – thanks to various alien technologies – the means to do so. And you’re immortal. And you can teleport and own a hypersonic anti-grav flying motorbike. On the other hand there’s still some room for adventure, since things haven’t got too safe and sanitised just yet.
The ship’s pretty easy: I’ll take the one that carries Louis Wu and co. to Ringworld. You’ve got your virtually indestructible General Products hull, in this case a #2 model: a 300 feet long cylinder, 20 feet wide, pointed at both ends and with a wasp-waist constriction near the tail (cheers, wikipedia) – and it’s transparent, for the best possible views. Inside the hull we’ve got an Outsider hyperdrive, while there’s a fusion rocket mounted on the outside for in-system operations. Bung on a delta wing for landing, some weapons (in addition to the fusion rocket itself) and sensors, stasis generators and artificial gravity, and we’re good to go. Oh, and throw in some hypersonic anti-grav flying motorbikes while we’re at it, just in case we run into any godlike megastructures on the way.
So, you’ve got a cool SF environment to zip around in, more human and alien cultures than you can shake a stick at, and a ship that not only fuses human and alien engineering in an ingenious and self-consistent way, but happens to be nigh-on invulnerable, and – not inconsequentially – ends up looking pretty cool as well.
So yes, it’s the good old Lying Bastard for me…but I’ll take it pre-crash, please.
For the size factor: Brian Aldiss’ Nonstop…a generation starship that’s fallen into anarchy. Climbing through level after level while battling savage tribes and deathtraps sounds like fun as long as I get to wear powered armor…
For the cool factor: Jack Vance’s “Sail 25.” [Amazing Stories, 1962] One of the few stories where you don’t mind the “as you know, Bob” exposition-it’s just that bad-ass. Though the idea of sailing to Mars on Henry Belt’s final voyage is sufficiently intimidating as to make me suspect it would be my last trip too.
For the fun factor: Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…the Heart of Gold would never begin to resemble anything approaching dull, though you’d want to stay on the good side of Zaphod Beedlebrox.
And for the ego factor: the nuclear-pulse powered megaship in my forthcoming The Machinery of Light. A ship that shits out nuclear warheads to propel itself can be a bit of a bumpy ride, but when you’re fighting World War Three, you’re willing to forego a little comfort in the name of wreaking havoc.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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